Annie Gomberg, a volunteer with the Police Station Response Team, stepped up in May to assist new arrivals in Chicago.
While thousands of migrants await permanent housing, Gomberg and other residents have made serving families at police stations their mission, cooking food and bringing clothing and bedding — even offering legal aid.
“When I got started doing this, I never expected to be running a small social services agency,” said Gomberg, one of hundreds of volunteers on the response team.
The group formalized around the start of May when there were a few hundred migrants at stations. The city has opened some shelters since then, but as the pace of arrivals has accelerated, so has the number of migrants at stations.
On Thursday, with over 15,000 total arrivals, 2,300 were sleeping at police stations.
Much of the care for these newest arrivals is falling regular Chicagoans, and it’s costing them millions, according to a budget estimate from Gomberg, who has taken on the role of an accountant for the group.
Other aid groups include Todo Para Todos, which ran an independent shelter for months in Pilsen, and the Mobile Migrant Health Team, a group of volunteer medical students and health care professionals providing care at stations.
These groups and others are all planning to talk about their contributions at City Hall on Friday, where at a meeting of the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights they hope the city will offer formal support.
The groups all quickly set up fundraising pages to recoup what they were paying out of pocket, but they also hoped the city would eventually step in.
“I agreed to do this for a little while because I never thought the city would let this go on,” Gomberg said, after almost five months of volunteering.
The city’s spending on migrants was approaching $200 million, according to a budget estimate shared with reporters on Thursday afternoon.
In June, the Police Station Response Team in a letter asked the city to “lift the overwhelming burden” on the volunteer network.
That got them a meeting with the mayor’s office, where they “got a lot of empathy,” said Britt Hodgdon, another lead volunteer.
She called it a “reality check” for volunteers who expected more from a progressive mayoral administration.
“We’re working with people who might be more allied to the issue of migrant and refugee rights,” she said. “Yet, we’re still not getting the resources.”
Hodgdon and others have faulted the city for instead spending millions on Favorite Healthcare Staffing, a Kansas-based contractor the city has contracted at least $56 million to run city shelters.
Meanwhile, volunteers feel obligated to continue, unless the city intervenes.
Sara Izquierdo, founder of the health team, wished they had the funds to do more.
Their budget, shared by Izquierdo, of almost $30,000 allows them to visit several stations a week, seeing potentially hundreds of patients, with the vast majority of spending going toward medications and co-pays.
But many stations don’t have regular medical visits, Izquierdo said.
As is, Izquierdo isn’t sure their current budget will keep them in operation through the winter, as was hoped, given the increasing rate of arrivals. This Tuesday and Wednesday, 14 buses arrived.
“We’re at that point we’re not sure what we’re going to do,” Izquierdo said. “It’s getting really overwhelming.”
While the volunteer network caring for migrants at police stations is showing signs of strain, migrants, like Winter Navas, who arrived in July, wonder where they would be without it.
Knowing his background in graphic design, volunteers asked him to design a logo for the group as part of a fundraising campaign.
For it he riffed on the Chicago flag, replacing the stars with butterflies, a creature which he views as a metaphor for migrants.
The lowly beginnings of a butterfly as a caterpillar remind him of the state migrants are in when they arrive: “Helpless,” he said.
But the help they receive at police stations, and at city shelters, can be like a “cocoon” where where they had a chance “to evolve.”
“We just need an opportunity to develop ourselves here,” he said, “an opportunity to live and to demonstrate that we’re good people.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.
https://chicago.suntimes.com/2023/9/28/23882324/how-much-have-regular-chicagoans-been-spending-on-the-migrant-crisis How much have volunteers been spending to help ease the migrant crisis at police stations?